Image: Waiting for a burger
Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
A customer waits to buy a hamburger in Havana, Cuba. Americans hoping Fidel Castro's resignation will bring new travel opportunities are in for a long wait, columnist Christopher Elliott writes.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/21/2008 3:06:32 PM ET 2008-02-21T20:06:32

Don’t pack your bags for Havana just yet.

Fidel Castro may have announced his resignation , but that doesn’t mean you’ll be touring the Plaza de la Catedral, strolling along Varadero Beach or diving on Isla de la Juventud any time soon.

“It’s still early for the American tourist to plan on sipping a mojito at the Hotel Nacional,” says David Guggenheim, who directs the Cuba program at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, Texas. “But change just might be in the wind.”

It could take time — months, or even years — before Cuba becomes the hot destination it used to be for American visitors, according to experts. But the doors to this once-closed island nation are already open to some Americans, and Castro’s retirement is likely to open them even wider .

Nothing is likely to change while President Bush remains in office. However, after the presidential election in November, and just in time for tourist season in the Caribbean, people expect a thaw. “Raúl Castro has indicated in the past that he would be open to a dialogue with the U.S., and presidential candidate Barack Obama has expressed his willingness to open a dialogue with Cuba,” says Guggenheim.

Not quite closed
Travel to Cuba isn’t illegal for Americans — at least, not all of them. Government officials, journalists, researchers and people attending conferences are allowed to visit the island nation, according to the State Department. Technically, travel to Cuba is limited under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and the Trading With the Enemy Act.

About 65,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2006. Among them were students at Ohio Northern University’s 11-week program in Environmental Management at the University of Havana. Terry Maris, an Ohio Northern University management professor who has visited Cuba many times as an academic, estimates that approximately 150,000 American tourists visit Cuba each year illegally. “If the embargo were to be lifted by the U.S. government, it is estimated that from 3 to 5 million American tourists would visit the island in the first year alone,” he says.

Video: Castro's life in pictures And that’s just the start. Several years after travel restrictions are loosened, Havana could conceivably become a subtropical Las Vegas — which is more or less what it was before Castro came to power.

“In the post-World War II period, Cuba outranked all countries in the world in the volume of passenger flow to and from the United States,” says Lisandro Pérez, a sociology professor and Cuba expert at Florida International University in Miami. “With jet airplanes, the actual flight is less than half and hour. Havana and Varadero are closer to Miami than Disney World.”

So what if there’s an embargo?
Once you have a license to visit, you can fly directly to Cuba from Miami, New York and Los Angeles on charter flights operated by some of the major U.S. airlines. But there are other ways to reach Havana. Some of the most popular routes include stopovers in Mexico, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and the Bahamas. (A helpful site for planning a Cuba vacation is the Cuba Tourist Board’s Canadian Web site.

Among the options:

  • For larger groups, Miami-based ABC Charters offers flights to licensed groups visiting Cuba.
  • Signature Travel, one of the largest tour operators in Canada, has all-inclusive “dollar stretching” Cuban packages to Varadero, Cayo Coco, Holguin, Cayo Largo and Havana.
  • Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Tico Travel runs tours to Cuba for licensed U.S. travelers, but it is also a good resource for visitors who would prefer to go the legal route.

Sure, getting to the island can be something of a hassle. But experts don’t think it will stay that way for much longer. “There’s momentum in Congress to make travel to Cuba easier,” says Susan Eckstein, a sociology professor at Boston University. “As U.S. business interests in Cuba pick up, there is support for lifting travel restrictions.”

Cuba after the revolutionBut for most Americans, it may be a good idea to sit tight until the embargo is lifted. Not just for practical reasons, but also because it’s the right thing to do, says Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Even with Castro gone, Cuba remains a totalitarian police state, according to the State Department. Halvorssen likens conditions in present-day Cuba to Apartheid South Africa, at least when comparing the plight of ordinary Cubans with tourists.

“Local people are not allowed to enter the hotels where tourists can stay,” he says. “Tourists eat like kings at the hotel buffet which Cubans — even if they have the cash — are not allowed to use.”

Americans, he adds, “should avoid the hypocrisy of visiting that kind of country.”

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What’s next?
When I lived in South Florida, I met many Cuban immigrants who longed for the day Castro was gone and they could return home. For me, there was no better symbol of that desire than the Southernmost Point buoy in Key West, which announced Havana was only 90 miles away. In the near term, at least, Havana might as well be on another planet, say people who are familiar with the situation.

“As far as legal travel, nothing has changed,” says Maria Lopez, host of the TV show “Judge Maria Lopez” and a Cuban immigrant who has visited Cuba more than 30 times in the last decade. “Hopefully Fidel Castro’s departure will help change U.S. policy to allow unrestricted travel to the island.”

Part of the problem, say people who have seen Cuba recently, is that its tourism infrastructure would buckle under the weight of all the American tourists. That’s one good reason to wait.

“Cuba only opened to tourism in the early 1990s, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Jack Kenny, author of the book “Cuba” (Corazon Press, 2005). The hotels built back then, he adds, were only meant to support a few million visitors from Europe and Canada. But the prospects of more Americans coming should spawn more investment in hotels and tourist attractions, which could ultimately support throngs of tourists from the mainland.

Until then, travelers who want to experience Cuba might want to book a ticket to Miami. At least that’s the view of William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It will take some time before Cuba can put in place the same infrastructure that Miami has,” he says. “Besides, we have the Latin flavor here.”

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Fidel Castro: The Life of the Cuban Leader

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  1. Three-year-old Fidel Castro is pictured here in 1929. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The three Castro brothers in 1941 from left to right: Fidel, Raul, and Ramon. Castro named his younger brother Raul his temporary successor on July, 31, 2006, after undergoing intestinal surgery. It marked the first time that Castro had relinquished power in 47 years of rule. (Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Castro, at 17 years old, plays basketball at Belen Jesuit High School in 1943. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Castro took up arms against the Cuban regime of President Fulgencio Batista for the first time unsuccessfully in 1953. Hoping to spark a popular revolt, Castro led more than 100 followers in a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. He survived the attack, but was imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty he went to Mexico where he was detained by Mexican immigration authorities for training troops for another uprising in Cuba. He is shown here resting on his cot in December 1956 in a Mexico City jail. He was released shortly after this picture was taken and continued his fight against Batista. (Bettmann via Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Castro is cheered by a village crowd on his victorious march into Havana in January 1959 after revolutionary forces seized control of Cuba. (Grey Villet / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Castro and his Marxist revolutionary ally, Che Guevara, try their hand at golf in 1959 after seizing power in the Cuban Revolution. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Castro and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Havana in 1959. Hemingway spent many years in Cuba and his novella “The Old Man and the Sea,” for which he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, centers on an aging Cuban fisherman. After the Cuban Revolution, Hemingway was forced to flee Cuba and return to Ketchum, Idaho where he lived out the last years of his life. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fidel Castro talks with Ed Sullivan, television variety show host and N.Y. Daily News columnist, January 6, 1959, days after the Cuban revolution ousted the Batista regime. The United States was the first nation to recognize Castro as Cuba's leader, but his radical economic reforms quickly rattled American leaders. (Harold Valentine / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castro visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1959. Castro visited the U.S. in April of 1959 as part of a charm offensive for his new government, but was refused a meeting with President Eisenhower. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Castro speaking before a huge gathering of people in Cuba in 1960. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Castro and Ricardo Alarcón on national TV on April 9, 1961, a few days before the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba on April 15, 1961 known as the Bay of Pigs. Alarcón, head of the Cuban parliament since 1993, is still a close Castro confidante and his main point person on U.S. relations. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Cuban Revolution leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevara shown during a meeting Havana in the early '60s. Castro declared his revolution to be a socialist movement on April 16, 1961. The failed U.S. invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, happened the next day, on April 17, 1961. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, landed in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 with the purpose of sparking a popular uprising and ousting Castro's government. Most rebels were quickly captured or killed by the Cuban armed forces, marking a major defeat in the U.S. effort to dislodge Castro from power. (Raul Corrales / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Castro cuts sugar cane in a Cuban field in October, 1962. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Castro learning to ski during a trip to Russia in 1962. The Soviet Union was a major source of military and economic aid for Cuba until its collapse in 1991. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Prime Minister Fidel Castro gives a radio and televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962 during which he talked about the measures taken by the United States regarding Cuba and the annoucement by President John F. Kennedy of a U.S. blockade of the island. The tense 13-day standoff over Soviet nuclear-armed missile installed on the island, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It was resolved after Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles. (Keystone-France via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Castro, his bother Raul, and Che Guevara in 1963. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Castro holds the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during an official visit to Moscow in May 1963. Taking advantage of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Cuba relied on billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies for decades. The disappearance of Soviet aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union created hard times in Cuba known as the "Special Period" because of the tight rationing of food, fuel, and consumer goods. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Castro, a star pitcher at the University of Havana and longtime baseball fan, gets set to fire a ball as he pitches for Camaguey Province against Pinar Del Rio Province at Cuba's Veradero Beach in July 1964. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Cuba Leader Fidel Castro sits with Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli on March 8, 1977. In 2011, Castro criticized the United States involvement in Libya calling NATO's actions "genocide." (Arna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Castro, once a passionate cigar smoker, is seen here exhaling cigar smoke during an interview in March, 1985 at his presidential palace in Havana. He gave up the habit in 1986 citing health concerns. Cuba has long been known as the world's foremost producer of cigars and the industry generates over $200 million annually for the country's economy. Bans on smoking in public places were introduced in Cuba in 2005. (Charles Tasnadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Castro took to the streets of Havana during the Aug. 5, 1994 riots, the largest anti-government riots since he had assumed power, that sparked the rafters crisis. Five years after the fall of the Soviet Union the Cuban economy was in disarray and tens of thousands of Cubans cast out in homemade rafts to make the risky journey to the U.S. creating a migration crisis. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Castro visiting the Great Wall of China during a state visit in December, 1995. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba looked towards China more as a Communist ally. (Cuban Council of State Photo Archive) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Castro at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Jan. 21, 1998 after the Pope arrived for his landmark visit to the communist nation. (Michel Gangne / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Castro talks with Elian Gonzalez during the inauguration of the "Museo a la Batalla de Ideas" in Cardenas, Cuba on July 14, 2001.

    Gonzalez was aboard an overcrowded motorboat that capsized en route from Cuba to Florida, killing his mother and others seeking to enter the United States illegally. He was rescued off Florida on Nov. 25, 1999, and then was at the center of a seven-month custody tug-of-war that culminated in US federal agents seizing him by force from Miami-based relatives. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Cuban leader Fidel Castro embrace during a visit by Castro on Sept. 2, 2001 in Johannesburg, South Africa where the two leaders were participating in the World Conference Against Racism. In power since the Cuban revolution in January 1959, Castro was one of the world's longest ruling leaders. Only Queen Elizabeth, crowned in 1952, has been head of state longer. (Jose Goitia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Cuban President Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter talk after a friendly game of baseball at the Latinoamericano Stadium on May 14, 2002 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first visit by a former or sitting U.S. President since Castro came to power in 1959. (Jorge Rey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Castro speaks with his brother Raul Castro during a meeting of the Cuban Parliament during December 2003.

    Raul Castro, who has been running Cuba since his brother Fidel was sidelined by illness in 2006, became his official successor in February 2008. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Two women hold up the latest edition of Granma newspaper bearing the headline "Message from the Commander in Chief," on Feb. 19, 2008, in Havana. Castro stepped down that morning as the president of Cuba after a long illness, according to Granma, the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party. (Jose Goitia / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Fidel Castro is seen on June 18, 2008 in Havana during a meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and his brother Cuban President Raul Castro, right. Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since he fell during an appearance in July 2006, but the state-run media occassionally releases official photos of the ailing former leader. (Estudios Revolucion / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with students at Havana's University on Sept. 3, 2010. Castro warned of the dangers of nuclear war in his first speech to the Cuban public since falling ill in 2006. (Desmond Boylan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fidel Castro makes a surprise appearance at the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2011. Raul Castro, right, was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party, with his aging brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Castro looks at the camera during a rare public appearance to attend the inauguration of an art gallery on Jan. 8, 2014 in Havana. The gallery Castro visited is run by Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, aka Kcho. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo Photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Castro speaks with China's President Xi Jinping in Havana, on July 22, 2014. Xi Jinping said that his state visit to Cuba is aimed at carrying forward the traditional friendship between the two countries jointly built by Castro and the older generations of Chinese leaders, so as to inject new impetus into bilateral cooperation. (Alex Castro / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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